Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Expands Its Military Presence in the South Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 11 – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to a Russian military base in Armenia nine days ago calls attention to Moscow’s expansion of its military presence in the South Caucasus, a presence that affects not only Moscow’s tightening of relations with Yerevan but also its ability to project force in the immediate region and beyond.

            In  1200-word commentary on the portal, Sergey Minasyan, a researcher at Yerevan’s Institute for the Caucasus, says it is not yet clear whether Russia’s latest moves are only a response to short-term imperatives of the geopolitical chessboard or are “serious and for the long term” but that clearly they deserve close attention (

            On December 2, Putin visited the Russian military base at Gyumri and watched a demonstration of the new weapons systems that Moscow has sent there, including helicopters and MIG-29s which will allow the forces there to counter Turkey’s F-16C/D and the updated fourth generation plus planes that Azerbaijan has recently acquired.

             In addition, Moscow has also taken over several sections of the Erebuni air field for the basing of a mixed helicopter unit.  That “will allow also increasing the potential for the conduct of joint attack operations, which are especially important given the forest and mountain relief of localities in the South Caucasus,” Minasyan says.

            Moscow’s intentions to upgrade both facilities were signaled last summer, the Yerevan analyst continues, when Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Organization for the Collective Security Treaty, said that his group would be taking steps to improve all aspects of the state of air power in the region.

             Subsequently, at the Organization’s Sochi summit, the group announced that it would also be introducing drone units into Armenia. And it said that it would also be installing advanced rocket and artillery equipment and armored tanks to protect it.  There reportedly are such systems now at Russian bases in Abkhazia and South Osetia as well.

            “Finally,” Minasyan points out, the ratification by the Armenian parliament of an agreement with the Russian Federation on expanded military-industry cooperation means that Yerevan will be able to purchase arms and ammunition at concessionary prices on the Russian market.

            It is quite obvious, the analyst continues, that these developments are connected with Moscow’s promotion of Eurasian integration to counter any expansion of European influence in the area. Indeed, he says, “many experts consider that Russian pressure in this sphere was decisive for the decision of Yerevan” not to sign an association agreement with the EU.

            But more is involved as well, Minasyan suggests. On the one hand, Armenia remains concerned about the danger of Azerbaijani military action to force Armenian units out of its territory.  And on the other, Russia is interested in having such new capacity to put pressure on other states in the region and deal with broader threats from beyond the former Soviet border.

            The “big question” now, the Yerevan analyst say, is “how serious and long term is the process of reforming the Russian military presence in the South Caucasus” going to be? The answer, he suggests, depends on developments in the post-Soviet space “in the immediate future.”

But it also depends “on how and how seriously Moscow and its opponents and partners will react” to what is increasingly becoming “a ‘zero-sum’ geopolitical game” in the South Caucasus, where the presence of one power leads to or at least is intended to lead to the expulsion of others.

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